She Said, He Said: Talking through fears, emotions can lessen relationship strain when it’s time to care for aging parents
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
My husband and I have been married for 26 years and have had a fulfilling relationship raising our kids and supporting each other through life’s challenges. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting since our kids moved out, but now my husband’s parents are both in their late 80s and have health and financial challenges. My husband’s solution is to have them move in with us but I have some serious hesitations to this suggested arrangement. While we do have the physical space to accommodate, I’m not sure we have the mental and emotional bandwidth to take on this new level of responsibility, especially since we’ve only been empty nesters for less than a year. Am I being too selfish?
Parenting Our Parents
Lori and Jeff: This is a situation we highly encourage couples to discuss early on in a relationship, even though it can seem premature when parents are still young and healthy. We commend you for thriving as a couple for 26 years, and encourage you to root deeply into that place of partnership when navigating this tricky issue.
Lori: In our work with couples we use a model of communication called “above and below the line.” Above the line are the details, logistics and minutiae of a situation — who said what, who did what, where the in-laws will live, how much money is involved, etc. Below the line are the emotions, fears and stories that are connected to the situation. Before jumping into creating a plan (above the line), it’s paramount to explore with your partner what this dilemma actually represents to each of you. What does it mean for him to see his parents as vulnerable, what does it mean to each of you to provide for them, what are you each most worried about?
Starting below the line has two significant benefits. First, your specific needs come into focus. Instead of having blanket resistance to taking in your in-laws, you may find that there is actually more flexibility and negotiation space between the two of you once you’re clear on what each of your particular fears are. Second, it creates much needed space to really hear and validate each other’s emotions. With this simple act of acknowledgment you’ll likely find yourselves much more aligned as a team, tackling this situation with greater empathy, care and compassion for one another.
Jeff: Caring for aging parents is a situation most of us will eventually face but have likely spent little time preparing for. Most couples are focused on raising kids, balancing careers and working through financial issues on the path to building a secure future (while also trying to have a bit of fun along the way). It’s easy to believe our parents will always be able to care for themselves or the reality that we may have to be responsible for their well being as they get older may also just be something we’ve never had to address. Either way, it’s time to add the discussion about aging parents to the element of Partnership and Roles, one of the “five elements” we’ve established as being necessary for a healthy, sustainable relationship.
Partnership and Roles may seem like it might have the least amount of emotional content when compared to the other four (Trust and Emotional Safety, Mindful Communication, Individuality and Interdependence, Intimacy) but as Lori said, there is plenty of “below the line” substance to be considered. This component is rooted in being on the same team — sharing similar values and longer-term visions and goals. It’s also about being willing to take responsibility for each of our parts and holding up our own ends. Not only is it establishing who will do what and how, but it also requires proactively setting boundaries and creating plans that help reduce the reactivity and defensiveness when things get stressful like in trying to decide how to care for your in-laws.
Lori and Jeff: In our society, self-care and selfishness are often blurred. Having a healthy and sustainable marriage requires setting boundaries and sharing roles and responsibilities. However, for those boundaries to be appropriate, you really need to be crystal clear on what specifically you need, want and fear.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.